Weekly Column

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As the summer heat reaches its peak, many families in Nebraska choose to take vacations around our state or in other parts of our great country. The summer months are an excellent time to explore a new part of Nebraska, go see family or friends, or visit one of the nation’s historic national monuments.

Unfortunately, spring and summer this year have been quite different than normal. COVID-19 has forced most of us to put travel plans on hold or cancel them altogether.

This necessary sacrifice, to help “flatten the curve” and not see our medical providers and facilities overwhelmed, has led to a huge drop in the number of people taking flights. Domestic airline travel in March was down more than 50 percent compared to the same time last year.  Even more striking, airline travel was down by 96 percent in April and 89 percent in May compared to the same months last year, and it likely won’t return to usual levels for the foreseeable future. 

This downturn in airline traffic has been especially hard on regional airports, like the Western Nebraska Regional Airport (WNRA), which is just outside Scottsbluff and serves the Panhandle. Airports like WNRA receive funding from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which supports the development, improvement, and safety of airport infrastructure. Formula funding that an airport receives from this program depends on the number of people who board flights at that particular airport during the previous year.

For smaller airports, the threshold to aim for is 10,000 boardings per year. Once they reach this level, airports receive at least $1 million from the FAA in AIP funding, which they then dedicate to repairing runways, purchasing emergency equipment, and other projects that make air travel safer. 

But when the number of flights is significantly down nationwide, this way of calculating how to distribute these funds no longer makes sense. This is why I introduced the Airport Infrastructure Readiness Act, or AIR Act, earlier in July.

This bipartisan bill would require the FAA to calculate fiscal year 2022 and 2023 AIP funding based on the boarding numbers from either 2018 or 2019, rather than the 2020 or 2021 figures. This would provide airports in Nebraska and across the country with more certainty about the level of support they will receive in the near future, allowing them to plan for these important safety projects.

Airports across the state are dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus. My staff and I spoke with many of their directors while drafting this bill, including in Lincoln, North Platte, Omaha, Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Grand Island. They all expressed their support for the bill.

The projects that this FAA program funds are vital to the safety of many airports’ everyday operations. I am looking forward to passing the AIR Act and bringing them the certainty they need.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.